Zerlanga’s Revenge

I’ve been away from Old Town Alexandria since November, so my attention was caught by reports in The Washington Post and The New York Times about the recent “scandal” in the historic district. A property owner on the main commercial street, King Street, frustrated by city bureaucrats who prevented him from expanding his hunting-and-fishing store, signed a long-term lease with La Tache, a shop selling sexy clothes, paraphernalia and X-rated DVDs. Shocking!

Mr. Zerlanga tried to expand his original sports store, genuinely striving to meet the requirements of the city agencies charged with protecting and preserving the historic quality of the city. Eventually, he was financially drained by the efforts of his lawyers and architects, who worked with city officials. City staff had encouraged him to proceed with his good-faith efforts to meet reasonable standards. Then they turned him down. His proposed alteration of his building was rejected because the roof’s flounder shape atop his building, facing a private alley, failed to retain its historic slope.

So everyone lost. Those residents who care about the quaint quality of Old Town are aghast at the provocative, low-class new occupancy. Those libertarian-bent observers who view some bureaucratic rigmarole as officious, precious and unnecessarily interfering may take private pleasure in Mr. Zerlanga’s revenge over the ’crats, though they — or we, as I am one of this group — would have preferred the fishing store. With or without Mr. Zerlanga’s second-story flounder shape, the roof had precious little to add to Old Town’s old-towniness.

Old Town Alexandria is a special place with an aesthetic worth preserving. Still, critics of some prevailing preservationists and city officials wish they’d use their powers for more truly disturbing conditions that they’ve ignored — gross tour buses that clog the streets and belch fumes, noisy motorcycles that groan their cacophonous noise late at night, bars that disgorge drunken revelers in the wee hours when most residents are asleep. And the main street in Old Town already has lost its historic feel, occupied as it is by wig shops, souvenir stores and taco treateries. Hardly historic, hardly aesthetic. These conditions, more than Mr. Zerlanga’s questionable roof slant, are worthy of interference by the city, but do not receive it.

Perhaps Mr. Zerlanga’s revenge will lead to a re-evaluation of the priorities of preservation. Meanwhile, I can’t wait to see what the new shop has to offer.


Visit www.RonaldGoldfarb.com.